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Progress and uncertainty

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SOME see the House of Lords as an anachronism, but debates in this House still seem to be conducted in a more measured and (dare one say it?) more civilised manner than is often the case in the House of Commons. This does not make them any less pertinent, and a debate on the management of infectious animal diseases last week was both topical and relevant.

The debate took place on March 10 and was initiated by Baroness Byford, former Opposition front bench spokesman on agriculture and an honorary member of the bva. In the space of just over an hour, interested peers aired concerns on a whole range of issues relating to animal health, from the prevention and control of foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza and bluetongue, to the options available for controlling bovine tb. Other concerns related to cuts in defra's budget and government proposals on responsibility and cost sharing, which will obviously have an impact on how animal diseases are dealt with in the future. As is often the case, the outcome of the debate was not altogether clear cut. However, it certainly highlighted areas where animal health policies need to be clarified and, at a time when the Government seems more concerned with environmental and other matters, helped focus attention on the issues.

Cost and responsibility sharing is one area where things need to be clarified but, responding to some of the questions raised during the debate on behalf of the Government, Lord Rooker, the minister responsible for food, farming and animal health and welfare, indicated that a coherent policy was still some way off. defra issued a consultation document on the subject in December, with comments invited by April 15 (see VR, December 15, 2007, vol 161, p 798; February 16, 2008, vol 162, p 193). It has also helped to organise a series of industry seminars around the country to help inform the exercise. This exercise is not yet complete and, he explained, is not about policy as such; rather, it is intended to help the Government to construct a policy. ‘It will be much later in the year before we can come forward with anything that resembles a policy, and there will then be further proper consultation on it.’ The Government, he made clear, is ‘in the middle of the process’.

The Government remains committed to consulting on its policies and it may be that, in what is undeniably a complex field, this is indeed the best way forward. However, it is perhaps unfortunate that, on this particular issue, the Government seems to have been in the middle of a process for quite some time. Initiatives continue to be developed under the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, and progress is undoubtedly being made (see, for example, the reports on the launch of the Joint Campaign Against Bluetongue and on a recent meeting of the England Implementation Group on pp 358 and 359-360 of this issue). At the same time, progress is being hampered by continuing uncertainty about who is prepared to pay for animal health, which the current round of budgetary cuts, staff reductions and changing priorities in defra is doing nothing to dispel. This issue needs to be resolved if things are to improve, particularly at a time when the disease challenges are increasing and scientific developments offer new opportunities for disease prevention and control. At present, there is a sense that policies are in a state of flux. Although almost certainly a coincidence, the fact that, as well as an acting Chief Veterinary Officer, we now have an acting chief executive of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency and an interim chief executive of Animal Health (see p 358 of this issue) simply adds to the sense that things are unsettled.

On bovine tb, Lord Rooker was noncommittal, indicating that decisions still had to be taken following publication of the efracom report in February (see VR, March 1, 2008, vol 162, pp 258-259). He did, however, indicate that the Government was maintaining its commitment to vaccine research. With regard to a decision on badger culling, he said that the Government would be considering ‘the impact of measures and what the science tells us’. Addressing the National Farmers' Union's centenary conference in London last month, the Secretary of State at defra, Mr Hilary Benn, said that he fully intended to make a decision on what the Government and the farming industry should do about bovine tb. On this matter in particular, it is to hoped that a decision can be made soon, if only to dispel some of the uncertainty that can be a hindrance to progress.

Whatever the decision regarding badgers, it remains important that all other available measures are employed to control bovine tb. A short communication in this issue of The Veterinary Record on the use of the interferon-γ test to help pick up cases missed by the tuberculin skin test is relevant in this context (see pp 382-384).

Lord Rooker concluded the debate by remarking that the ‘adjustments’ being made to both personnel and finance in defra, which he accepted were difficult, had not diminished its capacity to deal with disease outbreaks. ‘We may not get the solutions — compensation, financial arrangements and other packages — as quickly, but our top priorities are to deal with the disease, to get trade restored as quickly as possible, to protect animal health as far as we can and to deal with the consequences to humans.’ He assured his fellow peers that the Government would ‘not cut corners in those areas’. It is difficult to see how that can be achieved until the issue of cost sharing is resolved. Nevertheless, it is an important commitment, on which the Government must be held to account.

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